Based on M M Kaye’s novel of the same name, this miniseries is a lavish period piece set in 1870’s India with a galaxy of stars – Sir John Gielgud, Omar Sharif, Christopher Lee, Saeed Jaffrey, Parikshit Sahni, Jennifer Kendall, Vinod Nagpal, Art Malik, etc. There is a strong thread of lost-and-found along with forbidden love-affairs, battle scenes and of course, lavish sets and costumes – in short the recommended masala allowance and then some!
Warning: Epic-length post with many spoilers ahead!
The story begins in 1865 when 11 year old Ashok makes his way into the head quarters of the Queen’s Own Corps of Guides at Mardan (North West India). Dodging the guards, he manages to hand over a package to the commandant (Robert Hardy). The package contains proof that he is really Ashton Pelham-Martyn, son of late Hilary Pelham-Martyn, and a British subject.
Young Ashton (or Ash he is called by everybody), lost his parents in the days of the 1857 mutiny and was saved from the vengeful Indians by his faithful ayah Sita (Joanie Sethi). She passed him off as her own child – Ashok - and took service with the royal family of Gulkote.
Brought up as an Indian servant in the castle, Ashok incurred the enmity of Biju Singh (Saeed Jaffrey in an EVIL role!) as well as the undying affection of his playmate Princess Anjuli. Biju Singh branded Ashok with a hot revolver (the brand is significant, in true masala tradition!) and later drove Sita and Ashok out of the castle. Before they left though, Ashok and Anjuli exchanged secret love-tokens! (I am disappointed that they did not decide upon a song while they were about it!)
Sita decided to take Ash to his English relations in Mardan but the journey was too much for her. She died on the way but managed to tell Ash/Ashok about his true parentage. Once convinced of his identity, the commandant at Mardan sent Ash straight off to the old country to be brought up as a Pukka Sahib.
We pick up the thread of Ash’s story again, several years later. Grown up Ash (Ben Cross) is now back in India and on the way to join the Guides in Mardan. His fellow passengers on the long train and carriage journey are George Garforth (Rupert Everett), Mrs. Viccary (Jennifer Kendall), Mrs. Harlowe and her lovely daughter Belinda (Felicity Dean).
George and Ash proceed to fall for the divine Belinda and indulge in a friendly rivalry over her affections. The lady appears to favor Ash as he tells the most interesting tales of his romantic childhood and has the most absurd ideas about the “natives” of India – he has an Indian foster brother Zarine (Art Malik) whom he insists on embracing in public! The true Sahibs are appalled at such pedestrian behaviour.
Belinda and Ash are well on the way to happily-ever-after when his commandant plays the part usually reserved for disapproving parents in Bollywood films. He denies Ash official permission for marriage and posts him away from head quarters.
Poor Ash’s cup of woes isnt full yet. He learns of Belinda’s projected marriage to an old man and comes back to confront her. While he is away, some of his troop’s ammunition is stolen and all the soldiers under his command are penalised. He goes to their aid, disguising himself as a Pathan, and helps them recover the stolen ammunition. His superiors are impressed by his ability to go “native” but are unwilling to overlook his breach of discipline.
Poor Ash is sent off to Rawalpindi where he raises hell with fellow officer Wally (Benedict Taylor). He is finally assigned to escort a duo of Princesses on the way to marrying the Rana of Bhithore (Rossano Brazzi). If Ash only knew – this is his ticket to ROMANCE!
The group he is to escort is under the leadership of the Princesses’ Uncle, Kaka-ji Rao (Christopher Lee) of Kharidkote and the commander of Kharidkote, Moolraj (Parikshit Sahni). To his delight he discovers that it also has his foster father (of Gulkote days) - Koka Dad (Omar Sharif). It from Koka Dad that he learns that the princesses he is escorting are from the Royal family of erstwhile Gulkote (now Kharidkote) and one of them is his childhood playmate Anjuli (Amy Irving).
Also of the party are Ash’s old foe Biju Ram and Anjuli’s younger half-brother Prince Joti (Shayur Mehta). Biju Ram is along to arrange a fatal accident for Prince Joti at the behest of Kharidkote ruler Prince Nandu (Ravi Behl).
Whilst at dinner one night during the journey to Bhithore, he manages to pass his old love token to Anjuli. Alas for Anjuli. She wasnt brought up on Bollywood and entirely fails to recognise Ash as her Ashok. Our hero assures her of his identity and there is a tearful re-union. The two soon embark on a forbidden romance that can only last the duration of their journey.
The lovers manage to sneak off for daily rides as the Princess claims to be tired of travelling in the carriage all day. And then, a freak dust-storm during one of these rides gives them their only chance to consummate their love. Ash is all for eloping and leaving the escort behind but Anjuli is made of more self-sacrificing stuff. She is marrying the elderly Rana because her younger sister, Princess Sushila (Sneh Gupta), the Rana’s affianced bride, is terrified of going to Bhithore alone! For her sister’s sake, Anjuli will marry the Rana and sacrifice Ash.
Apart from secretly romancing Anjuli, reminiscing with foster-father Koka Dad, striking up a friendship with Rao Saheb, Ash also manages to foil Biju Ram’s plots. He reveals his former identity (through the brand, of course!) to Biju Ram and proceeds to annihilate him.
Once in Bhithore, Ash and Rao Sahib have to cross swords with the Rana of Bhithore. The Rana isnt keen to marry Princess Anjuli as she is the daughter of the Prince of Gulkote and a Russian woman and to marry a half-caste is beneath his dignity. After much sparring, the Rana is brought to agree to the marriage which duly takes place.
Poor Ash! He watches his second great love get married, and returns to the Guides to resign his commission.
The Commandant sends him on one last assignment – he is to disguise himself as a Pathan and gather information in turbulent Afghanistan for the English mission there. The Brits just defeated the Afghans and set-up an embassy there headed by the bull-headed Sir Louis Cavagnari (John Gielgud). The Afghan soldiers are in an ugly mood and far outnumber the British troops. Ash however, is unable to get Sir Louis to evacuate from Kabul and can only help them in a doomed defence against the rampaging Afghan soldiers.
Being the only Englishman to have survived the Afghan debacle isnt the end of our hero’s adventures. He learns that the Rana of Bhithore lies dying. Its been decided that upon his death, the Rana’s two wives will commit Sati. Ash enlists the help of his father and the Gulkote doctor - Hakim Gobind Dass (Vinod Nagpal) - to rescue Anjuli from the funeral pyre.
The whole series clocks in under 310 min and was originally telecast in 6 episodes. In an epic style, there are more side stories and characters than I can begin to recount in one review. The production values are excellent – there are lavish sets, great locations, lovely costumes and the battle scenes are very well done though a bit too long for me. In the Afghanistan and Bhithore of the series, many of you might recognise the pink sandstone buildings of Jaipur and the palaces of Udaipur (there was one location that I remember seeing in Paheli, too). The story is fast-paced and well narrated, keeping you engaged with the action onscreen.
My major problems were with the two leads. Ben Cross was good but I couldnt find myself warming to him. He is shown to be a British soldier with divided loyalties but apart from a few outbursts against treatment of “natives”, he gives no indication of loyalty to anything but the Raj. Moreover, he didnt seem to be able to even pronounce his name – Ashok – well enough to pass for an Indian! Princess Anjuli was more of a self-sacrificing prig than Meena Kumari at her lachrymose best. It didnt help that Amy Irving as the Princess gave a good imitation of a brown-painted wooden plank. Her “Darling I love you” and “What is the time” were all declaimed in the same tone!
What I really liked about the series (and the only reason why I spent 300+ min on it) was the rich supporting cast. Christopher Lee was wonderful as the Rao Sahib and could almost pass for an Indian! Omar Sharif was adorable as the benevolent Koka Dad. Vinod Nagpal was great as the helpful hakim and Jennifer Kendal looked surprisingly happy in her all too brief part. Art Malik was charismatic in his small appearance as Zarine while Saeed Jaffrey was horribly evil as the conniving Biju Ram. The other actors in the British roles were all expectedly good – especially Rupert Everett and Felicity Dean. I forgot to mention Iftekhar who played an Afghan helping Ash. Didnt someone in blogland say Iftekhar is everywhere? Well it appears to be true!
Though there was meticulous attention paid to detail, I was surprised by the odd accents of all the characters who were playing the non-British parts. Even the Indians who were playing Indian roles had rather odd English and Hindi accents! And the brief snippets of folk songs and kathak dance were surprisingly bad.
Its an interesting story in the true romantic tradition – something that normally appeals to me. But, I found the main story rather uninteresting and couldnt care less about the boring Ashton Pelham-Martyn or his extremely annoying lady-love. That apart, it may be enjoyed for its epic story-telling and beautiful visuals.